Uneasy Spaces: Capitalism, Race and Pleasure

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and BHC

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: African American; Business and Economy; Consumerism and Consumption; Environment; Gender and Sexuality; Gilded Age & Progressive Era; Immigration and Internal Migration; Intellectual; International Relations; Oral History; Race; Science and Technology; Social and Cultural; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration; Urban and Suburban; Visual and Performing Arts

Papers Presented

"Grow It Yourself": Crisis Gardening from 1894 to the Present

In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, Detroit mayor Hazen Pingree instituted a vacant lots gardening program for unemployed residents whereby they could grow food, root vegetables in particular, to feed themselves and their families. Numerous major cities followed Detroit’s lead instituting similar programs, but most urban garden organizations faded into oblivion once the crisis dissipated. Likewise, similar programs for citizens to produce their own food occurred during the Depression of the 1930s and both World Wars. After a period of economic prosperity, some people in the 1970s cultivated “recession gardens” that were created on local and state government properties.  During the 2020 and ensuing Covid pandemic, gardening picked up again as Americans were placed in lockdown and the present recession could possibly create another round of crisis gardening. Why do citizens take food supplies for granted and how do they react when food is expensive or limited?  Why are people reactive rather than proactive regarding nutritional resources? And how did Americans react to government programs instituted to counter poverty, win wars, and eke out a living during economic downturns or public health emergencies?  I hope to answer these and other questions that arise as I address crisis gardening as a component of my ongoing research in the field of horticultural history. I hope to identify when changes took place and which  cultural elements contributed to the fall and occasional rise of gardening.

Presented By
Maureen Sherrard Thompson, Florida International University

Coin Diving, Colonialism, and Tourism in the Caribbean, 1890-1940

Between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, the ongoing crises of the late-colonial Caribbean mingled with an emerging trend: white American and European tourists who flocked in growing numbers to the tropics, in search of pleasure, leisure, and adventure. As these travelers arrived in port in the era before commercial flight, they encountered a ubiquitous scene: boys and young men in small rowboats, who would surround the incoming steamship and, nude or nearly nude, dive in the tropical surf for coins tossed overboard. Images and accounts of these coin divers circulated widely in travel media, and were instrumental in constructing a tourist-friendly vision of the Caribbean seaside as exotic, picturesque, erotic, and accessible. In colonial Caribbean sources, however, coin divers were viewed not as an alluring spectacle but as a criminal threat, somewhere between beggar, truant, and sex worker. The divers themselves were working-class youth inhabiting a harbor-world on the periphery of a stratified and shifting society. They experienced firsthand the transition from Caribbean colonialism to mass tourism, and used the harbor to enact a limited autonomy and demand recognition within a system that provided them few meaningful alternatives. Analyzing the tensions between these contrasting modes of power—one that commodified and one that criminalized the coin diver—we can better understand the complex dynamics of the transition from plantation colonialism to tourist neocolonialism in the Caribbean.

Presented By
Stanley Paul Fonseca, University of Southern California

Forging Aesthetic Capitalism: Sensory Alienation and the Emergence of Consumer Culture in the Mid-Twentieth-Century United States

“Every organ of sense is injured in an equal degree by artificial elevation of the temperature, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise.” So argued Karl Marx in his seminal work, Capital, in 1867. Pointing to physical and psychological damages to factory laborers, Marx saw crises as a necessary feature of capitalism. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie, too, lost rich sensory experience under capitalism: “The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save […] your capital.” For him, the loss of sensory experience meant social alienation in the capitalist system. Marx was interested primarily in the working of industrial capitalism, emphasizing, perhaps overly, the capitalist obsession with money. However, as later scholars have shown, what Marx saw as sensory alienation for capitalists was not necessarily or solely a result of capital accumulation. Rather than simply accumulating money, capitalists (and others—who would be later called “mass consumers”) did appreciate a new sensory world of goods. This transformation of sensory experience owed partly to the emergence of what the historian of science Steven Shapin has called the “aesthetic-industrial complex.” In the emergent era of mass production and mass marketing in the late nineteenth century, manufacturers, scientists, designers, and marketers together created a dizzying array of products, ranging from cosmetics and toiletries to food and fashion, with different colors, shapes, smell, texture, and taste. The most important end result of this development was not merely a new marketing strategy. Business began reshaping how people perceived the world through their senses, creating what I call “aesthetic capitalism”—a mode of capitalism that rested on, and was fueled by, creating and appealing to sensory and emotional experience. I use the term “aesthetics” to refer to holistic human perception and sensations rather than simply the domain of art, beauty, or visual elements, following the original definition derived from the ancient Greek word Aisthesis. Aesthetics hence is a form of knowing through physical and psychological stimuli. This paper explores the creation and implication of the new sensory world by focusing on the development of sensory science widely adopted in the food industry in the mid-twentieth-century United States as one of the building blocks and driving forces of aesthetic capitalism. Sensory science helped turn what was seemingly subjective taste into “objective” knowledge and perception, which was a key to the standardization and mass production of products. The development and widespread acceptance of sensory science within industry refashioned the aesthetic aspects of products and, more importantly, helped depersonalize the aesthetic experience of consumers in buying and using goods. Food manufacturers constructed a new kind of aesthetics, which became the industry standard in product design and marketing—and the social norm. Consequently, scientists helped raise sensory awareness and enhance aesthetic experience by creating new sensations, but at a cost of diminishing the personal and the local.

Presented By
Ai Hisano, The University of Tokyo

Laughing to Keep From Crying: How Jackie "Moms" Mabley Fought Back With Comedy

Jackie "Moms" Mabley used her performances, particularly stand-up comedy, to confront the crises of racism and sexism in the twentieth century. This paper presents a biographical study that places Jackie “Moms” Mabley within major moments of African American and U.S. cultural history, including the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement, the black film movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights campaigns. Through an analysis of primary sources including comedy recordings, interviews, and newspaper coverage, this paper illustrates that Mabley was an artist-activist who used her platform as an entertainer to speak out against racism and sexism, and to raise people’s consciousness about black liberation movements. She was often subtle in her commentary, and by embodying the “Moms” persona when leveling her critiques of Jim Crow and sexism, her statements were more readily accepted by broad audiences. Mabley’s life and comedy is historically significant because she used the stage to discuss the struggles of women and African Americans, while critiquing the inequality and marginalization these groups often faced. Mabley used comedy as a way to engage in social protest by expressing critical commentary about racism, politics, gender issues, and sexuality. Her work was also significant because she exposed multiracial audiences to the forms and traditions of African American humor. Jackie “Moms” Mabley had an intersectional identity that provides a lens to better understand issues of race, gender, and sexuality and how they have worked together historically. This sets her apart from her male contemporaries because using an intersectional lens provides a clearer understanding of race and gender issues than looking at them separately would provide. It is the combination of Mabley’s identity and the content of her comedy that makes her a valuable index for the experiences of black people, especially black women, in early to mid-twentieth century America. 

Presented By
Sarah Wolk FitzGerald, Valdosta State University

Loss in the City: Antiblackness and Dis/Investment in the Nation’s Capital

In the context of a post-World War II housing shortage, the federal government implemented a series of policies designed to provide adequate housing to all. This included building public housing, financing new private housing developments, and subsidizing home mortgages. These policies led to increases in homeownership rates for both Black and White people. For White people, homeownership in the 1950s translated into intergenerational wealth as their homes consistently increased in value and their neighborhoods featured well-funded schools as well as employment opportunities. Many scholars have argued that Black people were denied these opportunities as the federal government redlined areas where Black people lived and did not underwrite loans for them. However, there is a caveat, at least in Washington, DC. Black veterans were able to purchase homes in DC with loans from the Veterans Administration (VA) and other Black people were ablet to purchase homes with conventional loans, sometimes from Black-owned banks. Despite a six-fold increase in Black homeownership in Washington, DC between 1940 and 1970, homeownership did not translate into the accumulation of wealth in Black communities. Instead, as White people left neighborhoods where Black people purchased homes, and they were transformed into segregated all-Black communities, the city and federal government as well as the private sector began to disinvest from these communities. In this presentation, I explain how and why homeownership did not translate into prosperity for Black families.

Presented By
Tanya Golash-Boza, University of California, Merced

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Rahima Schwenkbeck, Business Historian
Dr. Rahima Schwenkbeck (she/her) is the Director of Publications at the Policy Studies Organization. Her research interests include advertising, funerals, concepts of utopia and business history. She has written on a range of topics including radioactive landscapes, Insane Clown Posse, and communal economics. Her book, The Business of Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and Architecture of Communal Societies in the 1960s and 1970s, was just released by Palgrave Macmillian.

Presenter: Sarah Wolk FitzGerald, Valdosta State University
Sarah Wolk FitzGerald is assistant professor in the Department of History at Valdosta State University in Southern Georgia. Her work focuses on the Civil Rights Movement, popular culture, and public history.

Presenter: Stanley Paul Fonseca, University of Southern California
Stanley Fonseca is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. His research centers around the history of twentieth-century tourism in North America, focused on issues of mobility, sexuality, capitalism, and consumerism. His dissertation project, Cruising Empire: Sex, Mobility, and Mass Tourism narrates the global rise of twentieth-century tourism through an analysis of the cruise ship industry, especially through its associations with romance and sex, its transformation of the ocean into a playground of permissibility, and its impact on destination ports.

Presenter: Tanya Golash-Boza, University of California, Merced
Tanya Golash-Boza is the founder of the Racism, Capitalism, and the Law Lab and a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is a prolific scholar, with several published books and dozens of academic articles and book chapters. She has received several awards, including the Distinguished Contribution to Research Book Award from the Latino/a Studies Section of the American Sociological Association for her book, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism – published by New York University Press in 2015. Her textbook, Race and Racisms: A Critical Approach, published by Oxford University Press, is now in its third edition and is the leading textbook in this field. Dr. Golash-Boza is currently working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation that explores how gentrification affects formerly incarcerated Black men in Washington, DC. That work is featured on her website: MappingGentrification.com. Professor Golash-Boza is also the creator of the blog, Get a Life, PhD, which focuses on faculty success and wellbeing and has over 4 million pageviews. For this and other mentoring work, she received the UC Merced Senate Award for Excellence in Faculty Mentorship in 2019.

Presenter: Ai Hisano, The University of Tokyo
Ai Hisano is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. She specializes in cultural and business history; studies in capitalism; the long-term development of technology; and the history of the senses. After receiving a PhD in History from the Hagley Program in the History of Capitalism, Technology, and Culture at the University of Delaware in 2016, Hisano served as a Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School (2016–17), and taught at the Graduate School of Economics at Kyoto University (2017–2021). Her first book, Visualizing Taste: How Business Changed the Look of What You Eat (Harvard University Press, 2019), won the 2020 Hagley Prize in Business History (Business History Conference) and the 2020 Shimizu Hiroshi Book Award (Japanese Association for American Studies).

Presenter: Maureen Sherrard Thompson, Florida International University
I am a dissertation candidate at Florida International University specializing in horticultural history between the years 1870-1920, in particular the intersection of business and horticulture. My dissertation, "Capitalism, Crops, and Cultural Change Through the Lens of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company, 1875 - 1915," examines the company's evolving customer demographics that reflect elements of socioeconomic and sociocultural change in American society. My research also considers gender and class. Along with Cynthia Prescott, I edited Backstories: The Kitchen Table Top Cookbook (Digital Press of North Dakota University) and One Hundred Years of Growing and Giving: The Woman's National Farm and Garden Association, 1914-2014 (published by the organization). I have presented conference papers on pioneering commercial seedswomen, and early urban gardening programs.